Curfews are a safer plan than total lockdowns to slow Covid-19’s spread in informal economies

Tensions flare at a Cape Town camp set up by disaster management authorities during the South Africa’s 21-day nationwide lockdown April 9, 2020.
Tensions flare at a Cape Town camp set up by disaster management authorities during the South Africa’s 21-day nationwide lockdown April 9, 2020.
Image: REUTERS/Mike Hutchings
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On April 6, there were reports of a clash between youthful traders at a temporary market and police enforcing Covid-19 lockdown restrictions in Kaduna, Nigeria. It left five dead with multiple sustaining gunshot wounds. This follows movement ban related shooting deaths in Rwanda, one in South Africa, the death of a teenager in Kenya and two sustaining gunshot wounds in Uganda.

These clashes will only increase and escalate if the choice remains for daily wage earners to stay at home and face inevitable starvation or venture out and face the wrath of security services. The response to the Covid-19 pandemic that has become standard in high and middle-income countries is, in its current form, unfeasible, impractical, and arguably counterproductive in low income countries, especially across sub-Saharan Africa.

These difficulties, however, do not make these social distancing measures any less necessary.  We need these public health measures. Our challenge is to adapt them to informal economies which lack a comprehensive safety net to support those shut in.

Cash-driven informal sectors are a huge share of the economy of most developing countries, particularly in Africa where between 30%  to 90% of all non-agricultural jobs are informal. Millions of Africans are unable to survive without some form of daily trade and don’t have the advantages of bank savings, credit cards and online commerce to be able to stay indoors or “social distance” for extended periods. Our choices, however, need not be so stark or irreconcilable. The recommendations below, which are neither exhaustive nor universally applicable, attempt to adapt social distancing to Africa’s informal economies. It is possible this disease will be with us for up to a year, and thus must be met with public policy that can be sustainably implemented over the long haul.

While the crisis is a test for underfunded health systems, it will also be an exacting examination of any state’s governance capabilities and social cohesion. It cannot be overemphasized that any country attempting to implement these adjustments must ensure eternal vigilance since relaxation could potentially lead to carelessness, causing infections to explode.


Impose curfews not total movement bans. The idea is to restrict movement and limit the spread of the disease. We can reconfigure access to public spaces without a total lockdown. South Africa made multiple adjustments to its restrictions which is the right attitude since the first iteration of such policy is never perfect.

Enlist local community leaders to ensure compliance with movement restrictions: Social capital, like physical capital, is built over time and cannot be manufactured in time of crisis. The beatings, shootings and deaths so far are hardly an auspicious way to build trust with the communities whose compliance will be required. Authorities ought to expand the outreach beyond the state to incorporate community leaders, who have legitimacy with their communities. Citizens need to see their adherence to restrictions as a civic contribution to country, community and their own families.

Mandatory mask-wearing. People should not be allowed in public without masks because evidence is now showing that mass mask use contributes to preventing the spread. Heads of state, cabinet ministers and other high ranking government officials should always wear masks these masks when they appear in public to set an example. The masks should preferably be cloth masks which can be made by local tailors or by people themselves

Continue to improve and expand testing: South Africa now has the capacity to test up to 30,000 people a day and has deployed mobile testing units in townships and other low-income settlements. The African Union, through AUDA-NEPAD or Africa CDC ought to coordinate ramping up testing capabilities on behalf of its members. Invest in those tests as a means of expanding testing to isolate even the asymptomatic and prevent spread.

Expand definition of essential services. Essential services should include farmers, motorcycle and tricycle taxi riders, food vendors in local markets, farmers, and mobile phone company employees. Grocery stores are kept open in lockdowns elsewhere, for the average person in sub-Saharan Africa, food is purchased in open air markets. These markets are supplied with produce from rural areas.

There are reports that in some places, even farmers were been prevented from moving about. That’s a mistake. With a reduction in imports, local markets will depend overwhelmingly on domestic agricultural products. Support to farmers through the provision of fertilizer and other input should be a part of policy intervention.

Rotten fruits are seen behind trucks at a street market while the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Abuja, Nigeria April 9.
Rotten fruits are seen behind trucks at a street market while the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Abuja, Nigeria April 9.
Image: REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

Informality does not necessarily equal disorganized. All large markets in Africa, open air or enclosed, have marketing associations which maintain order, assign stalls and resolve disputes. Authorities need to work with these associations to break up large markets, but closing off side streets and moving some vendors to those areas to reduce the press. In South Africa, the government is working with local ward leaders to give permits to street vendors. If necessary, public markets should be reconfigured to only hold a third or fourth of its capacity of both vendors and customers. This can be achieved by the aforementioned break-up, through assignment of shifts or through assignment of a number of days of week each vendor can sell. Entries and exits ought to be limited to minimize social interaction, enforce temperature taking and handwashing stations ought to be posted everywhere.

With no public transportation options, a restructured access to public space will require taxis, mainly tricycles. Like marketing associations, these taxis also have their associations, work with them. Each one should only be allowed to take two passengers. A plastic covering ought to separate riders from driver and a smaller one put in the middle to separate riders. Tricycle riders must keep a sanitizing liquid in the taxi to wipe it down after each trip. Drivers should also be given staggered days of work so as not to have them all out at once. This would allow health care professionals, police, mobile phone company employees and other essential services to continue. Taxis can also be limited to shifts or certain days so everyone gets to work a few days a week and earn something while enforcing social distancing.

Direct Payment and Cash Transfer. Almost every country has some social protection program that makes direct payments to beneficiaries. Those systems ought to be used to reach the most vulnerable and scaled up as resources become available. Pensioners and mothers with children should be prioritized since protecting vulnerable populations is key. In places where students received meals at school, those meals should still be provided, with families queuing six feet apart to pick up the meals.

In many of the slum communities in Sub-Saharan Africa, local NGOs will be better able to target vulnerable populations than any government agency. These organizations ought to be incorporated into the governments’ official response.

Unlike movement bans, these recommended adjustments must not be imposed from above, but rather discussed with the leadership of affected communities, giving these policies the legitimacy required for compliance since they will be in place for a sustained period. This way should conditions worsen and these guidelines require cutbacks, people will be more willing to cooperate.

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